The Bentley Historical Library will close for the holiday break on Friday, December 22, 2017 at 12:00 p.m. and will reopen on Tuesday, January 2, 2018 at 9:00 a.m.

News Stories

“Lack of Taste, and Low Quality of Humor”

Why the Board in Control of Student Publications kicked Michigan’s student-run humor magazine, The Gargoyle, off campus in 1950, and what happened next.

By Alex Boscolo

In 1909, a University of Michigan student named Lee A. White founded a literary magazine on campus and named it The Gargoyle. He wrote, “We herewith offer to appreciators of good literature the first number of a literary magazine. We have tried to make it fresh, springy, and vital.”

To keep its vitality—and readership—The Gargoyle quickly transformed into a humor magazine, with content ranging from crude to lewd. (See below for a recently published comic about the magazine being born into a toilet, for example.)

origins-of-garg

“The Origins of the Gargoyle” cartoon by Fiona Tien, from a recent 2017 issue.

It was harmless stuff—until it wasn’t. In 1949, the Board in Control of Student Publications decided that the magazine had gone too far, and kicked it off campus. This is how The Gargoyle fought back—and remains to this day.

What Went Wrong?

In 1949, The Gargoyle’s November and December issues both sold out. An ad in The Michigan Daily begged students to sell copies back to the staff so they could retrieve advertising sheets. Things were financially solid until the winter of 1950, when the magazine suffered shortages. Their sales staff lost $10.55 — more than $100 in 2017 dollars. But this wasn’t the only problem.

Enter The Smooth Gargoyle, printed on May 1st, 1950. It featured a few especially racy articles, including a joke about keeping a mistress on the G.I. Bill and an ad for a one-cup bra printed on the inside front cover. The caption read “Expose a breast and look your best/ astound the nation with your foundation.” On the back cover was a note that read, in all lower case, “well, pigs, you have been exposed to smooth. we only hope a little has rubbed off.”

The editor at the time bragged to The Michigan Daily that The Smooth Gargoyle would “completely shatter all precedents of decency and decorum.” After the magazine’s printing, The Smooth Gargoyle didn’t alleviate any financial difficulties, and staff agreed the issue hadn’t bettered their low standing in the eyes of the Board in Control of Student Publications, either, according to the 1999 anthology, Gargoyle Laughs at the 20th Century.

smooth-gargoyle

The cover for The Smooth Gargoyle, April 1950.

On May 20th, 1950, the Board in Control officially made the decision to withdraw The Gargoyle’s funding, effectively stopping them from printing on campus. This was despite an apology by the editors in the May issue that read, in part: “With this. . . we give you a new, sanitary Gargoyle, a magazine you can show your sister; a publication even your mom can understand.”

The Board was not persuaded. The meeting minutes note that the magazine suffered from financial insolvency, minimal organization, a shortage of interested staff members, lack of taste, and low quality of humor.

The Gargoyle was determined to succeed anyway.

In the Fall 1950 semester, The Gargoyle staff joined together to independently print several issues from an off-campus location. According to the November 1950 masthead, in addition to a number of administrative members, there were nine staff writers and 18 artists. In December 1950, meeting minutes from the Board of Publications indicated that The Gargoyle had no trouble selling ads, making a profit, or gathering interested students. Contrary to the Board’s expectations, The Gargoyle was succeeding without its financial support.

one-cup

The controversial “one-cup” bra ad from The Smooth Gargoyle.

All of this is evidence that two of the Board’s three stated reasons for forcing the magazine off campus may not have been entirely honest: The magazine’s organization was well in hand, and although it had struggled financially on the last issue, it had a longer track record of success and selling out. It came down to quality of humor as the primary reason to push out the organization.

The Return

On December 15th, 1950, Gargoyle editors attended a Board meeting and petitioned for reinstatement. According to the official minutes, The Gargoyle stated that they had sold out recent issues and the staff was growing. Their presentation was successful. Effective for the Winter 1951 semester, The Gargoyle was back, and with a few minor interruptions, it has remained on campus since. The magazine recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Those interested in what the magazine has been able to print without leaving campus again can visit the Bentley for an almost-full run of The Gargoyle, or recent issues can be enjoyed online at gargmag.com.